The myths of creativity and genius

I love this candid and earthy rebuttal to the idea of suffering as central to creativity, from AL Kennedy’s piece in The Guardian:

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will be unworthy and deserve to fail. Economic Darwinism will crush them as they should be crushed. This kind of pressure can’t, naturally, be applied to nice people David Cameron might meet at parties or have gone to school with, because they would find it unpleasant. And might be crushed. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse – hence, I have to assume, the established insistence on extra-special suffering, just for artists. Because suffering keeps artists quiet, just as it can weaken and muffle anyone else.

One only need William Styron’s account of his crippling depression in Darkness Visible to realise that suffering might a subject of writing but not its everyday context, experienced by the writer alone at his or her desk. Similarly, especially after Wordsworth’s suggestion that he and other poets are ‘chosen’ by an unknown but infinitely intelligent hand to see where others cannot, the notion of creative genius is inextricably linked to that outmoded Romantic model. Hopefully, studies like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will go some way in suggesting that hard work, perseverance and determination – things that we all can aspire to – are the source of creative success rather than an imperceptibly inherited fate.

We like to personify nebulous notions. It provides a handle on a difficult to explain behaviour or ideas. We also privilege charisma and intuition above hard work and deduction. Ultimately we’re left with models of behaviour we deserve.

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